You’ve heard this phrase, right? Does it advance the plot? I ask it all the time. Remember, everything that happens in the novel you’re working on is supposed to be leading readers forward on a path (that is, the story arc) to the denouement. So as you’re rereading—as you’re self-editing before you send it to anyone else*—ask yourself: Does this scene advance the plot? If the answer is no, get rid of it. I’m very serious.
Last year I worked on a manuscript in which the protagonist’s friend, a woman, had a cat. The cat had a tendency to visit the neighbors, and the protagonist, a man, was one of those neighbors. He spent some time getting to know the animal. (And the animal’s owner. Heh heh.) One day, Puss-in-Boots inexplicably ran away. A not inconsiderable amount of word count was spent wondering where Puss could be, but by the final page, the cat had still not been found … the end. I should add the story wasn’t about the cat—or the friend, for that matter.
This, my friends, was a violation of the Principle of Chekhov’s Gun.
What’s that? The Russian physician/writer Anton Chekhov, considered one of the finest short story writers ever, wrote, “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” Otherwise, why have it there at all? Use it or lose it.
The cat—and any scene relating to the cat—did not advance the plot. And any scene not advancing your plot also has the effect of interrupting the forward momentum of the story. Since forward momentum is what keeps readers turning pages, you don’t want to get in the way of it, kids. (Now, if the gun is fired later, your having laid it on the table earlier was a neat bit of foreshadowing. So give that some thought.)
Remember, detail—the gun, the cat—is good; it helps the scene live and breathe. But unless it also advances the plot (or sheds light on character), it’s clutter. Here’s another example from a different manuscript. Our protagonist, a young woman, loves the movie Roman Holiday and makes every potential suitor watch it with her. Why? we wonder. Is it because Anya is (secretly) a princess? (Perhaps our protagonist wants to be treated like one. Perhaps she is one!) Is it the fabulous scenes of Rome? (Perhaps our protagonist dreams of going there. Perhaps she grew up there.) Is it because it’s a love story of a relationship that can never be? (Perhaps our protagonist is always attracted to the wrong guy. Perhaps she is secretly nursing a broken heart.) These were all possible avenues to characterization—which suggested other scenes, which advanced the plot.
The missing cat could have been used in the same way. It might symbolize lost love, for example, or an ongoing search for relationship. More obviously, the search for the missing cat might throw the two characters together in adverse circumstances and lead to romance (cliché though that might sound, you could make it work). Scenes like this are great ways to illuminate aspects of character, so you shouldn’t miss opportunities to use them.
Just make sure they advance the plot.
*Agent, editor, publisher, beta reader, Indian chief.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”